Saturday, May 30, 2009



I don’t envy comedians. I respect their craft, but I know I could never be one. That’s not to say that I do not admire them. I have idolized many comedians in my life, especially George Carlin and Richard Pryor. But behind all the mirth and jest, you could just sense that something was gnawing at them. Carlin and Pryor dwelled on troublesome issues beyond jokes. In finding humor, they also laid bare our world’s deep flaws. On some level, that must have made them unhappy. Not all comedians address large social issues; some just keep it simple and silly. As artists, however, they can never show unhappiness. They can never be “down” or “in a bad mood.” In that light, I think comedians face a tremendous challenge: They must always seem upbeat, happy, energetic and “amusing” in order to entertain their audiences face-to-face. There is no room for error. Comedy performances are startlingly immediate. The audience is there and wants to laugh. If the comedian can’t deliver, he is personally ridiculed off the stage. Imagine how that must feel. And they face that risk every day. They put their fates in the audience’s hands.

Good comedians always seem to get laughs. They make it look effortless. Their material sounds conversational and natural, even though they meticulously rehearsed it. They smile and move about cheerfully. In provoking laughter, they must at least appear to be “having a good time.” We don’t generally laugh unless something “funny” or “amusing” happens, and to be “funny” and “amusing” you must be energetic. We laugh when we sense a certain energy from another person’s actions or words. In that light, comedians must find the energy to amuse their audiences—every day. That is a substantial skill. Look at Jim Carrey. Can he possibly be that energetic every moment, every day? When he performs, he is a walking caricature. He moves his body spastically. He alters his voice constantly. To delight his audience, he works his energy into a frenzy. He wants to get laughs. And to get laughs, he turns up the energy. After a while, the audience begins to think that the comedian—whether Jim Carrey or anyone else—must always have high energy. They associate the man with the act. The man becomes a “high-energy caricature." His own identity means nothing next to his distinctive “performance art.”

I can only imagine what this does to a comedian’s self-image. It is hard to muster up frenetic energy every day. I know from experience that I can’t do it more than a few times a week. My moods naturally brighten and darken depending on my circumstances. Sometimes I don’t feel like laughing. In fact, sometimes I really want to be serious. I might be sad or morose. There is nothing wrong with this. We humans are emotional creatures and our feelings change with our stimuli. Sometimes we have energy. Other times we want to loaf around and do nothing. This is all perfectly natural.

Yet comedians do not have the luxury to be natural. They must be cheerful and amusing even when they don’t feel like it. They must be “up” even when they feel “down.” Even if they are contending with the worst personal circumstances, they cannot convey their negative emotions to the audience because that wouldn’t be funny. After all, audiences don’t pay to sit there and not laugh at a comedy show. They want energy and mirth, not sadness. They have enough sadness in their lives; they don’t want more sadness from a comedian who is supposed to be funny. I can only imagine how hopeless a comedian must feel when he has to do a show knowing he just “isn’t in the mood to laugh.”

Nonetheless, people do not understand that comedians are not the people they see on stage. They are human beings with all the flaws, foibles and emotional weaknesses as themselves. When comedians make the news in some “non-comedic” way, people can’t understand it. For example, Owen Wilson tried to commit suicide a few years ago. People were flabbergasted. They said: “Owen Wilson? Why would he want to kill himself? He is always so happy and cheerful in his movies. He was so funny in The Wedding Crashers. He never seems sad, etc…” Here, we see a marked divergence between the “personae” that comedians adopt in their “art” and the people they actually are. Who knows what kind of emotional turmoil Owen Wilson faces every day? Unlike most, I understood immediately why a successful comedian like Owen Wilson might want to kill himself. It’s a lot of pressure being funny all the time, especially if you don’t feel like being funny. And audiences are ruthless. They don’t want excuses. They want performances.

Comedians face pressure and judgment from all sides because they depend on the audience for approval. Actors face pressure from the audience, too. But comedians face it more acutely. When watching an actor in a dramatic performance, the audience does not always expect to laugh. They want to see believable action and hear believable words from the actors. Yet when an audience comes to a comedy show, they want to laugh. The performer faces a much tougher challenge in this situation. He faces immediate, specific expectations from the audience: “Make me laugh or I will boo you off the stage. Worse, if I boo you off the stage, you lose your job and you’ll feel like a failure, too.” Comedians, then, must meet the audience’s specific expectations or suffer immediate consequences. Actors, by contrast, do not face such immediate demands. Audiences might brand an actor “bad” in an ensemble performance, but that is not as brutal as being booed off the stage for an individual performance. And the psychic damage is worse for a comedian because he alone is responsible for the bad performance. It’s his show. If he fails, it’s his failure alone. In that sense, the emotional stakes are always high for a comedian. It is no wonder they suffer self-esteem problems. And it is no wonder—at least for me—that some may want to commit suicide after dealing with such pressures over a prolonged period.

Comedians must make the audience laugh to survive. That is no easy task, because laughter reflects approval. In essence, then, comedians seek audience approval. But who is the audience? To some extent at least, comedians are shameless sycophants. They must bow down and “give the audience what it wants” in order to win their approval through laughter. Yet laughter is a perplexing commodity. Not everyone laughs at the same things. It is nearly impossible to predict whether a given person will laugh at something. Some people are dumber than others and they don’t understand certain jokes. Others want to hear classic jokes. Some want “amusing stories.” Others just want silly sound effects. Some want wit. Others want unbridled vulgarity. Some like celebrity impressions. Others like political humor. Put simply, audience tastes are as varied as the sands. And even if a comedian manages to tap into an audience’s “comfort zone,” it still rests with the audience whether to laugh. The audience has all the power. Perhaps an audience really likes fart jokes. But even if the comedian tells his best fart joke, the audience is not required to laugh. Audiences are fickle; and their fickle judgments control the comedian’s fate. They laugh when it suits their tastes. The comedian cannot control their tastes. Whenever a comedian steps on stage, he takes a risk that his act will appeal to those tastes. He cannot know for sure whether it will. Thus, he lives in a world of uncertainty. If he wins approval, he feels elated. If he does not, he feels crushed. Every performance is a gamble and a leap of faith. It is a life filled with pressure, expectations and uncertainty. Against this background, it should hardly surprise us that many comedians suffer from anxiety. And they must summon the nerve to gamble again every single day, no matter how anxious they feel. Maybe this explains why Richard Pryor turned to drugs, Buddy Hackett had a nervous breakdown, George Carlin suffered several heart attacks and Owen Wilson tried to kill himself. Maybe this explains why Jerry Seinfeld just gave up on the craft after a good run, just as a smart gambler quits after a winning streak. In a word, comedians’ lives aren’t funny at all.

Who doesn’t like to laugh? Everyone likes to laugh. When we laugh spontaneously, we feel better, even if our circumstances are terrible. If we happen to make another person laugh with a comment or story, we feel good about ourselves because we know the other person approves us. That boosts our self-esteem. We get an even bigger boost when we amuse a large group of people, because we know that many people approve us all at once. But this quest for self-esteem through laughter causes problems. Once we experience how good it feels to “make others laugh,” we start “intentionally soliciting” laughter. We place expectations on ourselves. And when our targets don’t laugh, we feel dejected, not elated. Comedians experience this emotional cycle on a grand scale. Moreover, they do not “intentionally solicit” laughter merely to win individual favor; they do it professionally for large numbers. Money and emotional stability ride on the joke. This is a dangerous mix. People go into depression simply because they do not succeed financially. When you add lost self-esteem to financial worry, it becomes strikingly clear that comedians face harsh emotional challenges. When they don’t make the audience laugh, they not only feel worthless; they lose their money, too.

I am glad I am not a comedian. If my words make others laugh, I am grateful for their approval. But I do not stake my emotional stability on their reactions, nor do I purposely set out to win their favor. Rather, I simply try to “be myself,” which is not easy. I have always found it strange that people admonish distressed friends to “be themselves” when they face emotional hardship. What does it actually mean? Don’t we spend our whole lives trying to figure out who we are? And if “being ourselves” is so difficult and so exceptional, who are we in the usual case? Are we constantly just playing roles? Is it really so extraordinary to find our own identities? Apparently it is. Yet comedians never even get to “be themselves.” They must always step into their roles, muster energy and perform for the audience’s approval. They do not have the liberty to feel tired, lazy, apathetic, sad, downcast or even neutral. Rather, they must put on their “performance persona” and gamble that their act will please their unforgiving judges.

I am glad I do not have to do this. I will try to find my place in the world without learned artistry or dazzle. If I generate some laughter, so be it. If not, I will not feel like a failure. After all, I cannot control others’ tastes. In my view, it is a losing battle to even attempt to do so. For people have the strangest values; it is impossible to please them all. No one finds everything funny. Some people find nothing funny. Others find many things funny with a few bizarre exceptions. You just don’t know, and you drive yourself crazy trying to figure them out.

We are not really free if our self-esteem depends exclusively on external judgments. Ask yourself how happy you would be if you could never comfortably speak without trying to make your listener laugh. Or you could just ask a comedian.

Friday, May 29, 2009



I have little doubt that the Senate will confirm Judge Sonia Sotomayor as our next Supreme Court justice. I make this judgment on purely political grounds. After all, the power to confirm “Judges of the supreme court” lies with the Senate (see U.S. Const., Art. II § 2, cl. 2). And if history is any guide, it shows that the Senate party in power wins the confirmation fights. When the Republicans controlled the Senate, they easily overcame Democratic resistance to appoint fellow Republicans Chief Justice John G. Roberts (78-22) and Justice Samuel A. Alito (58-42). Now, the Democrats control the Senate by a healthy majority. They will similarly endorse their fellow Democrat, Judge Sotomayor. This has little to do with legal ability, conscience, honor or principle. It is all about politics. If you have more votes than the opposition, you win. If you don’t, you lose. If Plato were nominated to the Supreme Court by a Democratic President and the Republicans controlled the Senate, he would not be confirmed.

But of course the Republican minority will carp in this case, just as the Democrats carped when the Republicans controlled the Senate. It will not affect anything. It will just fill the air with bitterness and resentment; this is Washington and we should expect nothing less. Still, I always find it interesting when politicians bluster in vain because it gives me an insight into their values. Despite Judge Sotomayor’s obvious “Supreme Court pedigree” (i.e., she went to a top-tier law school; she got good grades; she clerked for the right federal judge; she served as a lower court judge; she curried enough political favor; she never went to prison or owed excessive debt), Republicans nonetheless will find issues to whine about. It is as predictable as the rain.

In a New York Times article today (Sotomayor’s Sharp Tongue Raises Issues of Temperament, May 29, 2009), I read that the Republicans find fault with Judge Sotomayor’s “sharp tongue.” According to several lawyers who practice before her on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, Judge Sotomayor is “occasionally combative,” “difficult” and “nasty” when she hears an argument she does not like. Some even said she is a “terror on the bench” who “behaves in an out-of-control manner.” This, in sum, has led Republican critics to oppose her “judicial temperament” rather than her intellectual qualifications. In other words, she may be smart, but she is not sufficiently polite to be a Supreme Court justice.

I actually like the fact that Judge Sotomayor volunteers her own opinions from the bench, especially when she criticizes a preposterous argument. I turned my back on the law because it is too technical. I reject its formalism, its inequalities and its vapid, hypocritical rhetoric. I reject it because it grandly claims to serve justice, when it generally only serves power. I reject it because it espouses principle, yet denies it to anyone who does not worship “procedure.” I reject it because it advances order over right, even when right is apparent. I generally despise judges because they buy fully into these hypocrisies to support a fundamentally unfair system. But sometimes judges surprise me. When they actually voice respect for justice and right, they redeem themselves. I even appreciate them when they dare to speak their minds about legal issues rather than merely reference arcane procedural rules to avoid the obvious, burning question. See, e.g., F.C.C. v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., Supreme Court Docket No. 07-582 (decided April 28, 2009). Judge Sotomayor does this more often than the Republicans like. This makes her an “activist” and “out of control.” As soon as a judge starts talking about justice, in other words, she has a “problem with temperament.”

What caused the Republicans to question Judge Sotomayor’s “manner on the bench?” They point particularly to her conduct in a recent appellate court oral argument in a case called Arar v. Ashcroft (see video at This is a high-profile case about the Executive’s alleged power to “render” foreign citizens to third-party countries to be tortured for “counterterrorism information.” Mr. Arar is a Canadian citizen who claims he was seized in the United States when transferring to a flight to Canada at an American airport. Arar said there had been a terrible mistake. The agents saw things differently. After a short detention, American agents allegedly sent him to Syria in order to circumvent America’s ban on torture. There, Syrian agents imprisoned him for almost a year and subjected him to various bodily indignities. Finally, they determined he was not a terrorist and sent him back to Canada. Now he sues the American agents who handed him over to Syria, claiming they knew full well he would be tortured there. In response, the United States government denied responsibility and asserted that American courts had no jurisdiction to hear the case because “federal agents” are not liable for “constitutional torts” when “national security and foreign policy” are at issue.

During oral arguments in Arar, Judge Sotomayor questioned the government’s lawyer. She cut him off twice in order to confirm her understanding about the government’s position in the case. She wanted to know whether the United States government truly asserted that American agents face no liability for sending people to be tortured abroad as long as they doctor up some “national security explanation.” This angered Judge Sotomayor for good reason. In essence, the government contended that it was “OK” to render people to countries that allow torture because the Executive has unquestionable “power in foreign relations matters.” Judge Sotomayor did not like that contention. She made her feelings clear that it was an awkward argument to make, especially in a country that professes respect for individual rights and liberties. She did not like the argument that the Executive can “do whatever it wants” simply because it says “national security is at stake.” She thought those sentiments did not sit well with the principles that animate our constitutional system. And because she made her feelings clear, Republicans now call her “sharp-tongued,” “out-of-control” and “nasty.”

Judge Sotomayor won my respect by confronting the government’s lawyer in this case. She was not even disrespectful or “nasty” when making her points. She may have interrupted the lawyer, but she did not insult or humiliate him. That is normal business in American appellate courts. Judges always showcase themselves over the lawyers. The lawyer’s cursory statements simply provide fodder for the judges’ own rhetoric. Judge Sotomayor did the same thing that many Republican judges do every day. But here, she actually took a strong position on an issue that should concern us all: Torture. If a judge does not get passionate about claims that her own government endorses torture, what will spark her interest? Securities fraud? Accounting irregularities? Property disputes? If anything at all arouses a judge’s sense of right and wrong, it should be torture. The United States claims to be a progressive, civilized country that respects rights and laws. Yet torture represents an earlier, not-so-civilized age in which raw, ugly power ruled over principle and reason. America publicly condemns countries that practice torture today. Against this background, if a judge does not fundamentally recoil when confronting allegations that the American government endorses torture, she should be ashamed to call herself a jurist.

This reveals the absurdity in the Republican position. Did they expect Judge Sotomayor to sit inertly by while the government’s attorney tried to justify torture with disingenuous procedural arguments? If they did, what does that say about their values? That torture is “OK” as long as a Republican administration orchestrates it? That “procedure” should win out over “justice?” They would have preferred that Judge Sotomayor said nothing and merely allowed the government’s lawyer to spin his guilty logic. You can even see in the video that the government’s lawyer is uneasy, not just because he is on the hot seat, but because he knows that it is wrong to defend torture. His face contorts. He bites his lip. His eyes dart nervously through the courtroom. When judges confront him about his substantive position, he tiptoes around the real issue and starts talking about procedures and precedents. He cannot bring himself to admit that torture is wrong, yet his demeanor admits it for him. Thus, the contrast between his behavior and his words make him a glaring hypocrite. Only his mechanical legal training prevents him from breaking down altogether. To her credit, Judge Sotomayor showed that she could forgo logic when confronted with fundamental wrong.

She did not sit quietly through this nonsense. No person with a basic sense of justice could have. Yet the Republicans seem to think that speaking out about fundamental injustice makes a judge “out of control.” As soon as a judge departs from vacuous questions about procedure, jurisdiction and statutory authority, she reveals a “poor judicial temperament.” In short, it seems to me that the Republicans want cowardice in a judge. A cowardly judge would allow the Executive to get away with anything. A cowardly judge would resolve a torture case on procedural grounds rather than grapple with fundamental questions of justice. A cowardly judge puts full faith in the “law,” even when the law clearly will not do “right.” A cowardly judge sits by and lets others do the real work later. A daring judge, on the other hand, can at least acknowledge wrong when she sees it and set the country on the right rhetorical path to correct it. I think Judge Sotomayor showed some daring in her exchange with the government’s lawyer in the Arar case.

But in the end, it really comes down to politics. A liberal “daring judge” is a “coward” to conservative eyes, while a conservative “daring judge” is a “coward” to liberal eyes. Here, Judge Sotomayor spoke out about an issue that largely appeals to liberals: The ignominy of torture. Because she spoke out on that issue, liberals label her “daring,” while conservatives call her “out of control.” But if a judge passionately spoke out about an issue dear to conservative hearts, such as “national security,” conservatives would call him “daring,” while liberals would label him “a coward” or “out of control.” Sadly, we see that principle plays nary a role in these judgments. It is simply about who says what, and whether the issue appeals to conservatives or liberals.

Must our judges be cowards? If we adopt conservative rhetoric, judges must be cowards when addressing questions concerning individual rights, dignity and justice. If we adopt liberal rhetoric, judges must be “out-of-control” when addressing questions concerning procedure, unfair power relationships and judicial restraint. If I had to choose, I would prefer a judge to be daring about liberty, dignity, individual rights and justice. Despite all my cynicism and suspicion, I still believe that the Constitution stands for good. I believe that it stands for evolving liberty and gradual improvement in society through advancing principle. I would prefer a judge be passionate about those ideas rather than cowardly and technical. Unfortunately, modern “judicial thought” counsels strongly against “expansive judging” and “unnecessary explications of principle” in court opinions. But why even bother having a Constitution if we do not have daring judges to expand upon the liberties enshrined in it? How do we advance as a society when our own constitutional arbiters take a narrow view on liberty? Should we not expect our jurists to advocate for us, “We the People,” the ones who created the Constitution in the first place? The ones who delegated its authority after the Revolution? If Congress and the President fail us—as I think they did on the torture question in the Bush years—who will speak for us?

I think we should expect our jurists to advocate for us. Judge Sotomayor showed that she at least cares about how our government acts with respect to our rights as citizens in a constitutional system. She recoiled from the suggestion that the Executive can “do whatever it wants” whenever it conjures up a shadowy “national security reason.” In essence, she showed that individuals matter more than the government. That is certainly an advance over Roberts and Alito, who could care less whether government swallows up individuals, or whether innocent people die at the hands of the State. In other words, Judge Sotomayor’s conduct at the Arar argument shows that she cares at least something for justice. In my view, that is an auspicious qualification for serving on the Supreme Court. And among at least four of its current members, it is a qualification sorely lacking.

Having said all this, I am glad I am not a judge. I like thinking for myself, not attempting to shoehorn my beliefs into precedent and prior judgment. Judicial work lends itself to obedience and cowardice far more than it does to daring. After all, judges work with others’ words, not their own. It is hard to be creative when someone else tells you how to paint. I echo Nietzsche on this score. Judicial work is like “dancing in chains.” Menschliches, allzu Menschliches Teil II, Der Wanderer und Sein Schatten Aph. 140 (“For what we call ‘Invention’ [in art] (metric rhyming, for example) is always just another chain that we lay upon ourselves”). Judges constantly imprison themselves in others’ logic and arguments. It is what they do. Yet when some passion escapes the chains, we should embrace it with full hearts.

Thursday, May 28, 2009



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Wednesday, May 27, 2009



Everyone fears death. The word alone strikes fear in us. It is the worst thing that can befall us. When we die, we are no more. No one can talk to us; no one can hear us tell our stories. We see nothing more. We hear nothing. We taste nothing. We touch nothing. We smell nothing. When we die, we can no longer experience anything. Pain no longer terrifies us. But nor does pleasure beguile us. Death cuts off our ability to experience the earthly world with our senses. And we humans are overwhelmingly sensory creatures. When we die, our bodies cease to be—along with all our senses—leaving our flesh to slowly decompose and turn to dust. No one wants to die. No one wants to leave the world of earthly experience.

Or do they? If we assume that death merely cuts off our ability to experience the earthly world with our senses, then death is not a bad option to someone whose earthly experience is unbearable. Because death and experience intertwine, our attitude toward death should depend on whether our experience in life is largely good or largely bad. Yet very few people consider death with such measured detachment. Death is an intellectual roadblock. It befuddles us because we really do not know much about it, at least metaphysically. No one can tell us “what it is like.” We can only speculate. We cannot plan our response to death because no one can provide us with accurate information about it. Death casts us into uncertainty. Human beings always fear things they cannot know.

Beyond uncertainty, we always think that death deprives us of something. Death makes it impossible for us to see our loved ones again. Death takes away our ability to experience joy and contentment. Even if our lives have little joy, we always hold out hope that one day our fortunes will change. Death, however, robs that hope. It completely precludes us from future joy. No matter how bad our lives may be, if we die, we deny ourselves the possibility of a “dramatic turnaround.” Once we die, it is all over. Again, death terrifies and stultifies us because it drives us into uncertainty about our own decisions. Even if our lives truly will bring us no further joy, we cannot certainly know that at the moment we die.

We also associate death with pain. We live our lives to avoid pain. By avoiding pain, we necessarily try to avoid death. When it comes to pain, our fear increases with the quantum of pain we believe we will face. In other words, we fear serious pain more than minor pain. Similarly, we fear terrible anguish much more than serious pain. We know only what we see, and when we see others die, we typically see them experiencing pain before death. We cannot talk to them after they leave us. We cannot know whether that pain continues after death. Again, uncertainty plays a role in our fears: We associate death with pain, and we cannot certainly know whether death ends that pain. Thus, while it appears that death brings peace to the writhing body, we fear the “undiscover’d country, from whose bourn/ No traveler returns.” Hamlet, Act III, sc. i.

But are our fears about death entirely reasonable? Can we use our reason to stay our fears about death? I think we can, at least to some degree. Let us begin with Hamlet. Hamlet’s speech about death provides an excellent overview of the issues a reasonable man confronts when contemplating death. It also reveals that uncertainty plays a central role in any assessment about death.

Hamlet analogizes life—with all its “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” “heart-ache,” “whips and scorns of time,” “[oppressors’] wrongs,” “pangs of despised love,” and “the law’s delay,”—to “waking.” “Waking life,” in other words, exposes our senses to bad experiences, from sheer “bad luck” to every imaginable health problem, emotional hardship and degrading personal insult. Against “waking,” however, Hamlet contrasts the “sleep of death:” “To die,--to sleep;--/ To sleep! perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/ When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/ Must give us pause.” Hamlet agrees that “sleep” metaphorically puts an end to all the evils that can befall us while we are “awake.” But uncertainty about “the dreams” that lurk in that “undiscover’d country” checks his enthusiasm for death. His uncertainty about death forces him to choose life, remarking that “conscience does make cowards of us all,” prompting us to “bear those ills we have rather than fly to others that we know not of.” See generally, Hamlet, Act III, sc. i, lines 56-90.

Hamlet decided against death based on an assumption. He used his reason to understand why he feared death. He allowed his fear to conquer him and he preferred to suffer the “ills we have” in life rather than accept “others we know not of” in death. I argue that his assumption was not entirely correct. While Hamlet understood that human beings are sensory creatures who experience pain, joy, humiliation and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” while they are awake, he did not grasp that their senses also function while they are asleep. We know from common experience that we are alive while we are asleep. We do not experience as much while we are asleep, but no one will dispute that our senses still function. We can still smell things. We still awake when a bug lands on our foreheads because our nerves transmit the stimulus to our brains. We still feel heat and cold. And we still see things in our sleeping minds, even if our eyes do not register them. Our dreams reflect our senses, even if they are not working at “full speed.” Put simply, we must be alive in order to dream.

But when we die, our senses completely cease to function. They do not function at “half speed,” or even residually. We cannot dream when we are dead. To dream, the body requires living brain tissue, living nerves and a living circulatory system. If we are dead, we do not have these things. In that sense, Hamlet is wrong to fear “dreams in the sleep of death.” Death may look like sleep to the outside observer, but the outside observer possesses his senses. The dead man does not. We cannot speak for the dead man, because we do not know what it is like not to have senses, nor has a dead man ever reported to us what it is like. Hamlet could well argue that we do not certainly know what awaits us when we die, so perhaps we truly can dream without the literal sensory capacity to do so. But this is pure speculation. Applying reason alone, we can say with some certainty that dead people sense nothing, and sensory capability is necessary to dream. Now, this does not completely resolve the question about “what awaits us when we die.” Still, it does provide us a reasonable foundation upon which to temper our fears about death. Hamlet’s reasoning only works if we assume that there is some otherworldly “sleep of death” that completely eludes human sense and inference. That requires some faith and speculation. Reason rejects such entreaties. A reasonable man may still fear death, but he certainly can rule out “dreaming” while he is dead.

So what is death like? And if we cannot dream “bad things” when we are dead, why do we fear it? I think that death is probably very much like dreamless sleep. When we sleep or fall unconscious, our sensory capacity drops to a minimum. Time loses all meaning because our senses convey nothing to us, nor does our brain transmit memories, impressions, emotions or impulses. We are essentially “inert matter” awaiting a sensory recharge. Dreams reflect at least some activity in the brain while we are unconscious. But if we do not dream while we are unconscious, we are truly “out of it.” Nothing frightens us. Nothing moves us. Nothing troubles us; nor does anything please us. All these emotions require functioning senses and living tissue. Sleep temporarily stays the senses and tranquilizes the tissue. Death does this permanently. Dreams may interrupt sleep because the senses and tissue reactivate in a reduced way. But death blocks all sensory function. In that light, we can safely infer that, as a matter of common experience, death and sleep reflect states of unconsciousness. We know what it is like to be unconscious. From a reasonable perspective, then, death only differs from sleep in the sense that we will never come to.

This is what we can reasonably fear: We will not wake up. In fact, this is less fear than bitter disappointment. If we know that we will never wake up from death, we will never get to experience all the good things life can offer us. Our fear stems from the certain knowledge that we will no longer experience anything with our senses. After all, death cuts off our ability to experience the earthly world with our senses. The earthly world can delight our senses as long as we are alive. Death eliminates that possibility. That disappoints us, because we like to delight our senses with earthly stimuli. It gives us joy. When we are asleep, we cannot see our loved ones or go on vacations. Neither can we see our loved ones or go on vacations when we are dead. Nonetheless, who really minds sleeping? People all enjoy peaceful sleep. Perhaps they enjoy it more knowing that their senses will reactivate in the morning. But when they are asleep they are not complaining about anything, especially if they are not dreaming. In a word, sleep—like death—cuts off our ability to experience things, both good and bad. This is not entirely a bad thing.

In past satires, I stressed that we should not fear death because eliminating our ability to experience earthly life with our senses rules out a lot of horrible things. First and foremost, death defeats pain. As mentioned, human beings fear death because they associate it with pain. But pain—like Hamlet’s “whips and scorns” and “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”—depends upon functioning senses, nerves and living bodily tissue. When the senses no longer function, pain disappears. Death cuts off the ability to experience everything, including the pain that flows from tortured nerves. Death defeats pain because pain depends on the senses, and death shuts down the senses. We can rightly fear pain if we know we will live to experience it. But we should not think that death is painful, because death precludes our ability to experience anything, including pain. In my view, anything that rules out our human capacity to experience bodily suffering is a good thing. While we might permanently forgo the opportunity to positively stimulate our senses when we die, we also permanently lose our ability to suffer negative sensory stimulation. If our lives are full of pain, worry, anxiety, agony, humiliation and hopelessness, death will deny our bodies the sensory capacity to continue tormenting us. In that sense, death is actually an outcome to be wished, not an end to be feared. Sensory experience is a two-edged sword. It can both delight and torture us. Death denies our ability to experience both. If sensory experience in life tortures us more than it delights us, then why should we fear death?

Reason tells us that death is a neutral event. Applying our senses, we can reasonably infer that death looks like sleep. We can also infer that we must be alive to dream. Thus, we can rule out any suggestion that we dream when we are dead. Continuing this reasoning, we also know that we must be alive—with functioning senses—to experience both positive and negative sensory stimulations, from inexpressible ecstasy all the way down to unimaginable agony. Similarly, we can infer that we can experience neither positive nor negative sensory stimulations when we are dead. We can conclude that death cuts off our ability to experience the earthly world with our senses. If reason is our guide, we are left with only two real reasons to fear death: (1) We permanently forgo the chance to experience positive feelings later in our lives, even if current circumstances are bad; and (2) Something happens after we die that eludes all reasonable explanation.

Ay, there’s the rub. Here we encounter the real problem; here we see the real uncertainty. Unless we truly believe that reason answers all our questions, we can never say with certainty whether anything exists or happens beyond reason. Some people believe we must choose between faith and reason. Personally, I believe in reason to the extent that human sense can answer a particular question. My senses tell me that corpses do not possess any sensory capacity. Medical science confirms that a dead brain has no function. My senses also tell me that the senses do not function without a functioning brain, and functioning senses are necessary to experience the earthly world. But my senses cannot tell me whether something happens to us after death, just as my senses cannot tell me whether God exists, or whether my life was fated to move down a particular path. There are unexplainable things in the world. Sense cannot grasp them. We fear them precisely because we cannot know them. Still, I am prepared to trust reason on all questions in which it provides a valid way to answer them. From an abstract perspective, that helps me cope with death.

But we can reasonably fear death if we posit that reason does not give us the whole picture about life. How can we know whether there is a state of consciousness beyond the senses? No living person has ever told us about it. When we die, perhaps we enter some hitherto unknown dimension in which our understanding about experience and sense no longer apply. I don’t know. I just don’t know. Nonetheless, now I am speculating. On this point, I take comfort. When it comes to pure reason, I can prepare myself for death. It is mere sensory shutdown. When it comes to faith, however, I am as lost as everyone else. If there is existence beyond sense and experience, I cannot comment about it. All I can say is that I do not know about it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009



Gabriel Williams Tire Ring Manufacturing Company (DOW: GW) is a successful enterprise. Even in the difficult economic climate since last September, GW has actually increased its revenue and expanded its payroll. By contrast, its competitors have slashed operating budgets, fired employees and tightened the belt on costs. Why? How has GW managed to actually grow during a recession? Here at Employer’s World Weekly, we believe that less successful companies can learn from more successful companies. We believe it is possible to identify crucial management decisions that separate good companies from those that fail. We all know that most businesses do not survive. In order to survive—especially in hard times like these—good business leaders must always keep their ears to the ground. To do that, good business leaders must be flexible. And they must be willing to learn from companies that do things differently.

Today, we examine GW’s special commitment to its employees. Great companies understand that success depends on human capital. Employees are a company’s greatest asset. A company that cares for its employees will always fare better than a company that fails to address their needs. Good employees not only work more productively, but they also inspire others to work to fulfill the company’s economic mission. Poor employees do just enough to get through the day; and they really do not care whether the company wins or loses. Many employers believe that poor employees are bad workers because they are lazy, loafish or stupid. Yet many workplace studies confirm that blame for poor productivity does not always lie with the employee. Rather, many studies show that employers’ actions play a substantial role in creating bad employees. Insufficient pay, unfair discrimination, lack of opportunity for advancement and even dangerous working conditions can make employees give up on the corporate mission. After all, good employees are zealous, enthusiastic employees. If the employer gives the employee nothing to look forward to, they will never develop the motivation they need to effectively serve the company. In short, good employers know how to make employees feel good about their jobs. When workers feel good about their jobs, they work harder. It is all about motivation.

GW understands this. Unlike many less successful businesses, GW does not look upon its employees with suspicion. It does not regard its employees as adversaries in a battle for pay and benefits. Rather, it constantly expands its operations with progressive compensation packages intended to reward employees for high productivity and dedication. GW rewards loyalty, sacrifice and motivation. It provides incentives for employees who observe the right attitude toward the corporate mission. In GW’s view, the right attitude toward the corporate mission is just as important as actual financial success. Why? Simple, according to GW’s Human Resources Director, J. Burton Foote: “Employees are like investments. You can’t expect them to pay off immediately. But unlike other investments, employees are human beings with thoughts, emotions, feelings and dreams. It is important to channel those thoughts, emotions and dreams toward the company. To do that, it is essential to cultivate the right attitude. When an employee truly believes in the corporate mission, he will work hard to fulfill it. The end goal is always financial success. But to get there, employees must believe in the mission. Our approach to employment focuses on making employees believe in the mission, not themselves. This method may not pay off in the short run. But it leads to success later. At GW, we believe lasting success is more important than fleeting success. That is why we treat our employees with dignity and respect. And we pay them better when they have the right attitude.”

GW hires when other companies fire. At the same time, it makes its new hires believe in the corporate mission. This all sounds easy, but how does GW actually manage to do this? Today, we examine GW’s hiring methodology. Late in 2003, GW boosted its hiring by 32% in one quarter, thanks in large part to revolutionary, nationally-broadcast employment search advertisements. These advertisements brought in thousands of applicants. Within a year, those applicants developed into dedicated employees, who in turn generated substantial returns for GW. By 2006, GW increased its capital base by more than 45%, joining the Fortune 500 in the process. Its employee base jumped from 2300 to more than 6800. Today, GW employs over 10,000 workers both in the United States and in foreign countries. And every quarter it attracts even more employees. The economic downturn last year did not dampen this upward trend.

So what is so special about GW’s hiring pitch? How can employment “want ads” bring so much success to one company, but not to others? In order to understand the secret to GW’s success, Employer’s World Weekly is proud to reproduce a GW employment ad. By examining the ad, we can see how GW generates interest in its corporate mission. We can also see how GW prompts motivation in potential employees. GW allowed us to reprint its advertisements in our magazine because it believes in American employment potential. Despite all the gloomy predictions, GW’s story is “living proof” that companies can grow in a recession. Below, we print GW’s most recent national employment advertisement. We hope that employers all over the country will learn from GW’s approach. In essence, GW believes that strong employment relationships depend upon mutual respect, not intimidation or inequality. And mutual respect leads to the motivation employees need to propel companies to success.


Gabriel Williams Tire Ring Manufacturing Company is America’s fastest growing employer for one reason: We respect you. We are a winning team with a winning mission. Everyone loves a winner. We encourage you to join our team. We are hiring in all 50 States. You can do it. Don’t let the recession get you down. Don’t feel discouraged. You can get a job with Gabriel Williams. And you can walk away with $50,000 a month if you do.

Do you think you have what it takes to be a Gabriel Williams employee? You can do it if you have the right attitude. All you need to do is call our call center at (888) 754-8000. Give your name and address. Once you do that, our call center staff will direct you to a residential house in your area. We will cover all transportation costs for all those who apply. At the house, you will have all you need to survive: Two bathrooms, a fully-stocked refrigerator, a bed, a telephone, a computer, a washing machine, a dryer, a dishwasher, furniture and even a television with all-access cable. GW will pay all the costs, including rent, electricity, gas, cable and taxes. You simply need to stay in the house and answer phone calls. You may not leave the house unless directed. Aside from that you are free to do whatever you wish at the house, as long as you are wearing clothing marked with the GW logo. But you may not receive any visits from non-employees.

You will receive directives at random from GW staff. You must answer the phone whenever it rings. You must do whatever you are told to do. You must wear clothing bearing the GW logo at all times. Additionally, every morning at 9 AM, you must answer the front door. A GW Employment Management Supervisor will check on you, inspect the premises and ask you to go to the bathroom. There, the GW Employment Management Supervisor will ask that you turn your back to him or her. Following this, the GW Employment Management Supervisor will urinate on you for no more than 60 seconds. At the Employment Management Supervisor’s direction, you will turn around and await further instructions. The Employment Management Supervisor will then ask you to remove your clothes, place them in the washing machine and clean them. Once you have laundered your clothing, the Employment Management Supervisor will ask you change into a clean outfit and recite the following phrase: “I love my job. Thank you for this opportunity.” The Employment Management Supervisor will then carry out a final quality assurance check, fill out an evaluation form and leave the premises. If you receive positive evaluations for each day during your stay at the house, you will receive $50,000, as well as an offer of permanent employment at GW. Your final work position will be determined by your attitude. Applicants who distinguish themselves during Employment Management Supervisor visits will receive better employment offers than applicants who say nothing during such visits.

During your stay at the house, you will submit to video surveillance. This surveillance will ensure that you promptly follow all directives you receive by telephone. You are free to watch any television programs you wish, as well as to visit any websites you wish. But if GW considers your television or internet usage inappropriate, an Employment Management Supervisor will bring this to your attention during the following day’s checkup. If you receive more than three citations for inappropriate viewing choices, you will be asked to leave the house and you will not receive any compensation for time spent there.

Applicants are free to volunteer to do more. At GW, we encourage employees to go beyond the call of duty for the company’s benefit. In that light, we offer additional incentives to applicants who choose to show more during Employment Management Supervisor visits. Although applicants must at least submit to daily urination and inspection, they may choose to show their dedication in other ways. In the past, successful applicants have chosen to eat garbage, sit in uncomfortable positions for six hours or more, cut off their fingers, do 600 jumping jacks while saying “Go GW!”, or allowed an Employment Management Supervisor to beat them with iron rods. Others willingly endured verbal abuse without responding. GW rewarded these applicants with amounts larger than $50,000 for their time at the house, as well as increased benefits. In one instance, GW rewarded an applicant $125,000 for his stay at the house—as well as full dental insurance—for agreeing to remain chained to the toilet for 30 days without food. Despite these voluntary hardships, the applicant nonetheless answered the telephone when required and opened the front door for daily Employment Management visits. After his successful stay, GW made him an Executive Vice President. He is now Director of the Developing Asian Markets Division in Shanghai, China.

Applicants for employment at GW must keep their priorities straight. In order to receive the $50,000 incentive, applicants must retain mental focus on the task at hand. Motivated employees keep their minds on the company mission, not themselves. In that light, GW reserves the right to remove any applicant from the house who demonstrates unhealthy personal pleasure while performing GW tasks. If employees experience pleasure, it should come from the idea of service to GW, not a personal source. In the past, we have asked applicants to leave the premises who experienced inappropriate personal pleasure during daily urination visits. Employment Management Supervisors know how to distinguish personal pleasure from pleasure in service. There is a crucial difference between experiencing pleasure for your own reasons and experiencing pleasure in carrying out GW’s corporate mission. At GW, we only allow employees to experience pleasure to the extent that it carries out our corporate mission. Good service is about good motivation. If an applicant experiences personal pleasure, it shows that his motivation comes from a personal source, not service. He wants to please himself, not the company. That is unacceptable. If an applicant experiences pleasure, he must only experience it as a result of serving the company. Any other policy would encourage disloyalty.

So what are you waiting for? Be part of a winning team. Find out why GW is the fastest growing major employer in the United States. Get a job and $50,000 just for sitting around a house for a month. Beat the recession and make a few dollars in the process. Call now: (888) 754-8000. That’s (888) 754-8000. Don’t let the marketplace get you down. Beat the market and be part of something. Join the GW team. Join a company built on mutual respect. It’s easy. And it pays. Because when we respect each other, we are all successful™. You want $50,000 and a permanent job, don’t you?

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Today I am flying to London to meet some old friends. I will be back on Monday and hopefully will have the strength to write by Tuesday. It is unusual for me to take breaks from posting. Normally I post everyday, with some exceptions. If you do not see anything popping up on the blog until next week, you know the reason. Never fear; I am still here, and I have plenty more issues to discuss when I sit back down to write.

I am looking forward to my trip. Traveling always refreshes me, especially when I travel to Europe. Maybe it's my ancestry kicking in. I just feel at home there. Although I am a little worried about the food (mutton, jelly doughnuts, liver salad, sausage rolls, fried fish filets, "chips" and "crisps"), I am most enthusiastic about the ales.

Before I leave, I must mention one thing I saw in the New York Times today. Apparently, the New York Police Department foiled a plot to bomb two Jewish synagogues in the Bronx. For almost a year, an informant infiltrated a group of four black American Muslims, one of whom was born in Afghanistan. During the investigation, the informant discovered that these four men "wanted to do something to America." But they had no resources, no contacts and no money. They did not even speak Arabic and had never left American soil. They simply "wanted" to be terrorists, even though they were just four poor angry black guys from New York. The informant secured some fake explosives for them, and even said he could help them obtain Stinger missiles so they could shoot down military aircraft in upstate New York. After the ill-informed conspirators planted the fake bombs outside the synagogues, the FBI moved in and arrested them all. No one was harmed. The bombs were inert.

Revealingly, the police did not even call these would-be martyrs "terrorists." Rather, they called them "petty criminals." I found this interesting. After all, America defines itself against terrorism. During the Bush era, America took perverse strength from this artificial duality. After all, life is much simpler when there is one black and one white, and the "America/Terrorist" distinction made all political analysis breathtakingly simple. It was utterly nonsensical, of course, but that's not the point. The point is that senior people in our government actually believed it. They believed that Americans were "white/good" and Terrorists were "black/evil." You can't get any worse than a "terrorist." Good versus evil. Luke versus Darth Vader. Who can misunderstand that?

But according to the NYPD, these guys were not even "terrorists." Ironically, I guess they were not good enough--or scary enough--to earn the title. After all, they were just a bunch of dumb "urban" guys who thought (stupidly) they had found free explosives. In a strange way, the whole "America/Terrorist" dichotomy actually dignifies terrorists in the sense that they must be "really good at being evil" to fall into the "terrorist" category. In other words, you need to be really good at what you do to be a "terrorist." Americans will only fear you if you are a "terrorist." They will take you seriously if you are a "terrorist." But if you are just a "petty criminal," Americans will laugh at you and call you stupid. They will not quake with fear. You do not deserve the imposing label "terrorist."

Yet how ironic is this? Aren't all terrorists supposed to be irretrievably bad, evil and worthless? You shouldn't be able to say that terrorists are "good" in any way, right? Perhaps not. According to public rhetoric, as here, you must be a really scary--and effective--criminal to qualify as a terrorist. You actually must have some skill, merit and ability to be an American arch-enemy. But if you are just a bumbling 25-year-old black guy from Brooklyn with an adopted Muslim name who says: "I want to do something to America," you are a mere "petty criminal." These guys "didn't make the cut." They were just inept "petty criminals," not ruthless, skilled "terrorists." They just weren't good enough to be "terrorists." If there were a terrorism job fair, these guys would not have even gotten an interview.

America's rhetoric about terrorism exposes even more thematic inconsistencies. In discussing the charges against these "dumb bombers," New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said: "This is a serious matter. They were planning on committing jihad (emphasis added)." I do not know Arabic, but I know from watching Fox News that jihad means "holy war." We hear it all the time. Muslims have fought jihad for centuries, both to expand and to defend their religion. Christians, too, have waged "holy wars" to expand and defend their religion (The Crusades; The Thirty Years' War; The Spanish Armada, etc). It is not a concept unique to Islam. Yet this is precisely what American rhetoric about terrorism would have us believe.

Here, the issue is not whether only Muslims fight for religion. The issue is the patronizing way in which America characterizes Islam. In this example, Commissioner Kelly--a police chief discussing criminal charges--says that the suspects wanted to "commit jihad." In English idiom, the verb "commit" always accompanies crimes. Men "commit" murder. They "commit" robbery. They "commit" rape. But jihad expresses the concept "holy war." It is not a common crime. It implies an abiding religious motivation. No statute forbids "armed action intended to defend the Muslim religion." In fact--in the Muslim understanding--jihad is a mandatory religious exercise against hostile forces; it is not a crime at all. Although its practical effects may give rise to crimes under American law, it really does not fit in the usual language about "everyday offenses." Yet Commissioner Kelly used the word "jihad" in the way he would describe any other crime. In this sense, he completely marginalized Islam and equated it with petty criminality. He might as well have said: "These men wanted to commit Islam."

I think this is significant. We still live with the inane "America/Terrorist" distinction even under Obama. Until America starts trying to understand why Muslims--both here and abroad--might have a problem with American policies and attitudes, we can expect more resentment, more violence and more "terror." George W. Bush shoehorned complicated issues into an unrealistic, fanciful "good versus evil" dichotomy. In so doing, he inflicted immense philosophical and conceptual damage on America's international reputation. Exploiting ignorance and passion after 9/11, he drew fictitious lines and stubbornly took sides. But religious strife and international disputes demand subtle explanation and genuine understanding, not blustering self-righteousness. Our problems have not disappeared since 9/11. If anything, they have worsened. The fact that there has not been another major attack does not prove that the Muslim world now "loves America." In my view, we still have a long way to go. After all, our public officials are still referring to traditional Muslim practices as "crimes."

Yet this is the absolutist path down which Bush led us. It will take time to correct the damage. It will take time to remember that black is not always black, nor is white always white. It may have been easy to think that there was "good" and "evil" in the world for a few years, but our delusion merely made the problems worse.

Contrary to all expectations, America does not yet have a monopoly on truth or virtue. Nor does it have a right to criticize other countries for waging religious wars, especially after the revelations last week that President Bush received weekly briefing books about the Iraq War inscribed with biblical quotations. If anything, we have a strong claim on the world monopoly for hypocrisy. And until we start selling our stake in that monopoly, we can expect more international strife.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009



By : Dr. Chuang Ho Fung, Esq. (bar licensed in all 50 States, plus the District of Columbia), M.D., D.D.S., C.P.A., D.V.M., P.E., D.P.M., Certified Race Horse Rider & Jockey, Certified 500-Meter Springboard Diver, N.A.P.T.-Certified Personal Trainer, State-Authorized Dietary Technician (New Jersey); Chairperson, The American Board of Standardized Test Takers (Multiple Choice Division); CEO and Founder, Ho Fung’s Test Wizzes, Inc., a Delaware Corporation with subsidiaries.

In America, success depends on taking tests. From school to work and professional life, Americans must repeatedly prove their merit by answering substantive questions under supervised time pressure. Third-graders must take tests to prove they can spell. Eleventh-graders must take tests to prove they can handle college work. Doctors must take tests to prove they know the aorta is not the colon. And lawyers must take the Bar Exam to prove that they know what contracts are. Tests define and mark our lives. If we do not do well on the test, we fail. If we do well on the test, we succeed. Our tests determine whether we go to college, get a job or make money in life. In short, tests are everything. Without solid test-taking skills, success is impossible.

We are successful because know how to take standardized tests. Test-taking is an art and a science. It involves iron nerves, time management, cunning, skill and aggressiveness. In that sense, taking tests mirrors American life. Just as a successful person must have iron nerves, solid time management skills, cunning and aggressiveness, so too must a master test-taker. Great test-takers manage their time to the minute. They do not spend 61 seconds on a question that only deserves 45. They know how to answer questions. And they are cunning; they can ignore distractions and focus solely on the important information in a problem.

We did not become master test-takers overnight. We spent our entire lives learning how to take tests. We endured failures before learning how to decipher standardized questions. We did not always know how to answer questions such as: “It is raining on Sunday, but not Thursday; Jones goes to the park on Wednesdays, unless it is Friday; Marge cooks in the parlor every day but Sunday, unless Jones goes to the park; When does Jones not go to the park? (A) On Tuesday if it is raining; (B) On Fridays, except Good Friday; (C) Unless Marge cooks in the parlor, on Saturday night; (D) (A) and (C), but not (B); (E) None of the above; but all of the above if Marge cooks a steak.” But now we can fish out the correct answer simply by looking at the sentence structure. We know how testers think. We can read their minds and give them the answer they want. We know how to use the words “but,” “unless,” “except,” “not,” “all,” “if” and “none.” Armed with those skills, we passed tests that made us doctors, lawyers, accountants, professors and veterinarians. All Americans can learn test-taking. They need not actually know the material; they just have to know how to take tests. In America, results matter. Tests measure results. In that light, testing is everything. Knowledge is unnecessary. Even the most knowledgeable man will fail a test if he does not know how to take it. And if he cannot subconsciously interpret the word “unless,” he will stand no chance at all.

Our test-taking abilities brought us untold riches. By learning how to take tests, we got into the best schools, passed all the professional license exams and landed extremely high-paying jobs. We learned how to take each test, aced them and started collecting our money. True, we often forgot everything about the test after we passed it. But that did not matter. We achieved our goals. We got our degrees. We landed our jobs. We did all this because we knew how to take each test along the way. Who can argue with success? Too many Americans complain that they just “cannot get over the hump.” We disagree. As the Successful Peoples’ Practical Alliance for the Reduction of all Life Questions to a Multiple Choice Test, we believe that all Americans can achieve success. They must simply know how to answer questions in a standardized test format. Once they learn this art, no door will close to them. Rather, even Harvard and Yale will bombard them with scholarship offers. After all, it is all about the score in America, in both life and sports. If you get the high score, you get the result you want. Test-taking skill will get you the high score. And that will get you all the love America can give.

Educators in the United States do not understand this. They believe that students should learn for learning’s sake, not merely to pass tests. They think that knowledge is a permanent asset, not merely an expedient instrument necessary to overcome a looming exam. These are fundamentally flawed assumptions. If it came between a well-rounded person who “learns for learning’s sake” with no special test-taking skill and a narrow-minded person who “learns what is necessary for the test” with special test-taking techniques, the trained test-taker will always get the higher score. And in America, high scores trump low scores. It does not matter that the well-rounded person retains his knowledge and thinks profoundly. Nor does it matter that the test-taker immediately forgets everything he learns before moving on to the next exam. Scores are more valuable than knowledge. Harvard does not take “smart people;” Harvard takes people who get the high scores on standardized tests. High scorers do not need to be smart. They simply need to know what’s on the test and how to correctly—and quickly—answer the questions. Intelligence actually hampers test-taking ability, since “intelligent people” see ambiguities in unambiguous test questions. Rather than instinctively answering, they hem and haw, pondering grammatical issues in the text. What good is intelligence when it costs them test success? Nothing. Thus, educators have it all wrong. Intelligence and knowledge are not the goal. Rather, students simply need to pass tests. They do not have to be “smart,” “curious,” “profound” or even “remotely bright.” They just need to know whether (A), (B) or (C) answers the question—within time limits.

Tests gave us all we could ever want in the world. We achieved our status because we learned how to take the tests and aced them. Nonetheless, even master test-takers face quandaries. Despite our superior test-taking abilities, there are some questions in life that we cannot answer. This frustrates us greatly. We feel cheated. We worked long and hard to learn how to take tests, only to discover that there are some questions that do not appear in a standardized format. Worse, no one grades or corrects responses to these questions, making it impossible to achieve a high score for answering them. Put simply, this is unacceptable. Test-takers deserve better. We believe that all questions in life must appear in a standardized, multiple-choice format subject to grading and scoring. We can answer any question by ruling out (A), (C) and (D). Why can’t we apply our skills to answer “unanswerable” questions? What message would it send to hopeful test-takers if they knew that all their hard work will never answer certain questions? As master test-takers, we are accustomed to success. We refuse to allow life to ask any question that we cannot answer in a graded, standardized format.

To reinforce respect for test-taking in America, we must draft a standardized test for “difficult life questions.” It is not enough to test future lawyers by asking them about evidence, contracts and property division rules. It is not enough to test future engineers by asking them about load walls and stresses. Rather, we must test and grade responses to all questions, not just questions necessary to get into universities and obtain professional licenses. To do this we must introduce a Universal Life Standardized Test (ULST). We must appoint a professional board to grade it. This is the only way to bring all life questions under standardized control. We are not accustomed to questions without answers. That is why we resolve ourselves to answering them all now—once and for all. No longer will people say: “There is no answer to this question.” Soon, there will be. And you will fail if you do not answer it correctly.

We believe that we can answer any question as long as we know the test. The ULST will provide definitive, objective answers to all life questions, even questions that have eluded explanation since time began. For example, the ULST will pose questions such as: “The purpose of life is which of the following, assuming Herbert is present in the room on Friday: (A) To live well according to James Wilson, except if his wife objects; (B) To obtain $5,000,000 before age 50, but not if it snows in London this March; (C) Meeting James Wilson; (D) Not meeting James Wilson; (E) All of the above except (D).” It will also resolve intractable philosophical issues with questions such as this: “Happiness can best be described as: (A) Joy, but not pain, provided the supervisor consents; (B) Pain without joy, unless the supervisor does not consent; (C) A warm house owned in fee simple absolute and not subject to adverse possession claims; (D) Mental retardation and lifelong dependency in the State of Ohio, but not mental retardation or lifelong dependency in the State of Hawaii, unless it is a leap year; (E) Death, unless it is not quick.” Additionally, the ULST will test an applicant’s ability to ascertain previously-unknown—and apparently insignificant—facts: “Bill Ruggles went for a walk in June 1987 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. During that walk, Bill DID NOT think which of the following thoughts: (A) I need to get home in order to urinate, but not feed the cows; (B) My wife is a mean and awful woman; (C) I do not need to feed the cows, but I need to get home to urinate; (D) My left middle finger has a cut on it; (E) None of the above except (A).” Lastly, the ULST will test matters of taste and morality: “Good people: (I) Read good books; (II) Eat good food, but not eel grass; (III) Exercise regularly without ingesting more than 500 calories per day; (IV) Tell the truth, unless working; (V) Do not tell the truth, except when not working; and (VI) Visit their parents in Duluth during bad weather, but never in summer, unless the parents are named Carlsbad. Applying these facts, bad people do which of the following: (A) (I) and (V), if they are not named Carlsbad; (B) Tell the truth, (II) and (III), unless they are working; (C) (I), (II) and (III), but not (VI); (D) (V) if not telling the truth at work in Duluth; (E) All of the above, except (III), other than eel grass.”

Test-takers will learn how to answer ULST questions in less than 60 seconds. Good test-taking requires disciplined time management. Applicants will have 180 minutes to answer 180 multiple-choice questions on the ULST. Applicants will have one 15-minute break in between the first and second halves. Applicants will not have access to any outside information during the testing session. They must know how to answer the questions without recourse to data. That is the only way to determine whether an applicant truly understands universal life questions. Proctors will circle the room to ensure fairness. The test will be administered quarterly. Registration will cost $575 per applicant, plus applicable taxes and fees.

We suggest that the National Board begin work on the ULST immediately. If we do not reduce all life questions to a multiple-choice test, we insult all the hard-working test takers who gave their lives to learn how to take exams. As it stands now, even the best test-takers cannot truly answer “what is the purpose of life” or “what makes you happy” because there is no standardized test to ask those questions.

No more. Through the ULST, test-takers will remove all uncertainty from their lives. They will take comfort in the fact that even tough questions can be answered—and graded accordingly. Finally, successful ULST takers will receive “Universal Life Certification,” meaning they have correctly answered every question in life. That, in turn, will allow them to update their resumes and legitimately claim that they “know what they are talking about” on any life issue. Of course, success on the ULST will not replace success on specific subject matter tests. Lawyers must still take the Bar Exam even if they have passed the ULST. Doctors must still take their Boards even if they have Universal Life Certification. Although successful ULST takers should not have a problem with specific subject matter tests, we believe that Americans can never take enough tests. After all, the more high scores one achieves in life, the better.

Life is understandable. Everything can be boiled down and graded under an objective standard. There is no uncertainty in life; rather, we can know everything. As long as we phrase our questions in a standardized format, we can answer them correctly. Tests are the gateways to truth and success. We control our own destinies. We simply must write the test, enroll in a course, learn how to take it—then pass it.

Enroll in a special ULST practice course today. Testing day is coming up. You want to pass, don’t you? You don’t want to fail, do you? You want to be successful in life, don’t you? If so, you had better start studying for the test. You can do it. You just need to know how to answer the questions. After all, life has an answer key, just like the ULST. Just learn it once and you’re on your way. Once you pass, you can tear up your study materials and go to work for the rest of your days, confident in the knowledge that you have “Universal Life Certification.”

Tuesday, May 19, 2009



Corporations are private profit machines. In prior essays, I noted that corporations are “legal entities” that pool money and labor for a single reason: To generate returns for shareholders. They concentrate management authority in a “Board of Directors” that makes “prudent decisions” solely to benefit the shareholders. Directors must observe a “duty of loyalty” to the corporation, meaning all their actions must serve the entity. Directors, then—as well as corporate employees and officers—are simply glorified servants. Like vassals in medieval times, they are “duty-bound” to support their corporate lords. They must not think about themselves. Their time belongs to the corporation and the shareholders who own it. The corporation pays them “compensation” for their pains; but they do not share in the overall profit unless they own stock. In short, true “business corporations” channel individual self-interest and multiply it a thousandfold. There is no room for altruism, compassion or charity. In fact, corporate leaders who spend money on others can be legally sanctioned. See, e.g., Dodge v. Ford Motor Co., 204 Mich. 459 (1919).

Corporations act largely in silence. Not many people know how they actually work. In fact, most people look upon them with some respect. After all, they look official. They own properties all over the country. Their employees wear uniforms. They have recognizable logos. Everyone can identify corporate goods, like Mercedes cars and Whopper® sandwiches. In short, major corporations play a visible role in people’s lives. They wield almost as much influence as the State. But this is the central error: Corporations have nothing to do with the government. While the State accords them special legal status, they are still private entities. They exist to sustain private enterprise. They owe no duties to anyone except their own shareholders; and their shareholders want profits. In that sense, corporations have a duty to act selfishly. There is nothing noble or glorious about their motives.

Yet corporations must cultivate a good image to win customers. If people did not to some extent “trust” a corporation, they would not buy from it. And no corporation can make a profit without customers. In that light, corporations cannot blatantly reveal that they just want to make profits. They need to advertise in such a way as to suggest that they “care” about their customers. They need to appear that they care, even though they only have one legal duty: To enrich the shareholders. This is no easy feat. After all, people do not like unabashed selfishness. So how do corporations mask their true intentions while convincing customers that they are “trustworthy” and “caring?”

I will not discuss every possible corporate ploy intended to fool customers into thinking that “corporations care.” That would take much too long. Rather, I want to discuss a specific corporate practice, namely: Advertising the company’s “family roots.” Many corporations do this. On trucks, billboards and even television commercials, they proudly claim: “We are Blah-Blah-Blah Corporation, a Family-Owned Business,” or “XYZ Inc. Family-Owned Since 1980.”

In effect, these companies want to associate themselves with the concept “family.” Why? In my view, it is quite insidious. After all, we all have a tender place in our hearts for own families. Even if we hate our siblings and our parents, we nonetheless grew up with them. We never completely forget them. On a very profound psychological level, we depend on our families for our identities, our names and even meaning in life. No matter how much we think Mom screwed us up, we still love Mom on some level. And when we think “family,” we think intimacy, familiarity, comfort, love, mutual caring, compassion, trust and “home.” This is not to say that all families nurture these positive things. Indeed, family life often brings great unhappiness and discord. But the fact remains that the word carries a generally positive connotation. No matter how bad our own family relationships may be, our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters know us and somehow understand us. We are “linked by blood.” We are not “just strangers.”

Companies exploit these associations when they paint themselves as “family businesses.” They attempt to forge a link between their private, undifferentiated profit-seeking and the positive, “caring” complex inherent in “the family concept.” They attempt to lull customers into thinking that they will not be “just another customer;” rather, they will be like a “family member” who deserves trust, respect, love and caring. These companies want to distinguish themselves from “regular corporations” that do not involve “families.” Those corporations are “cruel, cold and uncaring” because they are not “family-like;” they are just “companies” that “don’t care.” By contrast, a “family business” wants you to think that they care about you. It wants to believe that you are “special” because “families care,” while “regular businesses” do not.

But this is all a naked fraud. It does not matter who owns a corporation; it is still a corporation. Corporations exist to enrich private shareholders, whether those shareholders are total strangers or whether they are blood relatives. Put another way, it is irrelevant whether a “family” owns the company because it is not your family. Only your family cares about you and your needs. The family that owns the corporation will look to its own members, not you. It merely wants you to think that it cares about you by tying its name to the concept “family.” Advertisers know how to exploit average people’s mental processes. They know that the word “family” carries unusually hypnotic power. It is no accident that modern psychiatry dwells largely on “family development” and “family trauma” to identify psychological problems. Our family lives play a significant role in forming our personalities and character. Families nurture—and corrupt—our instincts for love, caring and emotion. Companies know that “family rhetoric” packs a devastating subconscious punch. That is why they attempt to link their image to “the family.”

How crass is this? How shameless? What does petty commerce have to do with our unique family life? Can companies really stoop this low? Yes, they can. In fact, they have a legal duty to resort to any means—ethical or legal, unethical or illegal—that generate more profits than costs. If triggering a fallacious connection between “family caring” and “corporate service” generates more profit than it would without the connection, then a company will adopt it. It might be utterly groundless and tasteless, but good reason and taste mean nothing next to the bottom line. In fact, if shareholders learned that the company made less money without the “family business” tag than it did with the tag, it could hold the Directors liable for failing in their fiduciary duties to them. In the free market, companies compete for customers and profits. They need to be inventive in order to obtain an edge. In this competition, delicate tastes will not prevail. Rather, only the strong survive. And the strong are not afraid to resort to any means needed to win the competition, tasteless or not. If that means falsely insinuating that the business is “one, big caring family,” then the company will insinuate it.

This is not just hot air. Many extremely large companies claim that they are “family businesses,” not just mom-and-pop shops in small towns. Du Pont Corporation claims to be a “family business.” So does Disney. These are not “close-knit, caring organizations.” These are ruthless capitalist titans who would sooner run over their competition than show mercy or compassion. Such ruthlessness is not thematically consistent with the concept “family,” yet these moguls do their best to cultivate a “family image” in order to better pursue their fundamentally “un-family-like” private ambitions. In essence, it makes no more sense to trust a “family business” than it does to trust a “Fortune 500 Company.” They are all the same because they all seek the same thing: Private shareholder enrichment at any cost. Self-interest dictates a corporation’s actions, not family-like compassion or mercy. If a corporation is a “family business,” it does not treat its customers or its competitors any better than the cruelest industrialist would. In that sense, “family businesses” only act like “families” with their own shareholders. The family gets the profit and the riches, not the outside world. This is the central irony in the whole “family business” fraud: Corporations want you to think that you are “part of the family;” but in fact you are simply paying to keep their family wealthy. You are not “part of the family.” You are an outsider. Again, if it is not your family, you should not expect it to treat you like a family member.

It is difficult for me to write about corporations without mentioning cynicism. Cynicism provides an ideal analytical framework to understand corporate action. After all, cynicism assumes that self-interest motivates all human behavior. Cynicism immediately penetrates corporate activity because corporations institutionally enshrine self-interest. Shareholders pool their money in a corporation to advance their own self-interest for minimal personal risk. A corporation exists to enrich its shareholders, not others. This is institutional selfishness; it provides fertile ground for cynical analysis. In fact, it would be illegal for a corporation to act altruistically because altruism implies acting for another’s benefit, not your own. When corporations act for others, their shareholders sue them for deviating from the “self-interest principle.” Against this background, it is possible to deconstruct every corporate ploy and expose its selfish roots. In virtually every case, when a corporation tries to “appear caring,” cynicism instructs us to mercilessly doubt its motives. Put simply, corporations do not care about others. To that extent, when they adopt measures intended to “appear caring,” a cynical explanation will quickly reveal the true motive.

Applying cynicism, we can easily deconstruct the “family business” ploy. Now, if we assume that all corporations have a legal duty to enrich their shareholders, we can also assume that all their actions will advance that duty. Enriching shareholders requires business success. Business success, in turn, requires loyal and trusting customers who funnel money into the corporation. It is not easy to convince undifferentiated customers to fork over cash, especially when competitors offer the same goods or services. Thus, success requires some gimmick, some special “catch” that convinces customers to choose one business over another. Customers must have some mental connection to the corporation that distinguishes it from the competition. Claiming that a company is a “family business” amid ostensibly “cruel competitors” can forge the necessary “mental connection.” After all, “family” carries a positive, “caring” connotation. An average customer would respect that connotation when choosing between undifferentiated commercial competitors. That extra “zing” might increase the chances that a new customer would choose the “family business,” leading to increased sales, more money and more “shareholder enrichment.” In the end, it does not matter whether the company treats the new customer “like family.” All that matters is that the customer spent his money with the company, not the competition. That fulfills the core corporate mission. The shareholders win. They advance their self-interest by exploiting “family” appeal with average customers.

Does it matter whether the company treats the customer “like family?” Certainly not. From a cynical perspective, it does not matter whether a company means what it says. It does not matter that the method is dishonest or even facetious, because results matter more than methods. When analyzing corporate action, I have learned to expect dishonorable, unethical conduct. After all, corporate action is all about the profit. If an unethical method wins more profit than an ethical one, a corporation must adopt the unethical method in order to please its shareholders (provided, of course, that the unethical method does not generate costs down the road). There is no honor in corporate practice. When results matter, methods become irrelevant. There is no room for principle. Corporations want results, not the psychic satisfaction that flows from vindicating impractical abstractions such as “honesty.” As long as the company appears honest to the extent necessary to maintain customer trust—and keeps healthy profit levels—there is no need to actually be honest. This is dishonorable. But it is also practical. And in corporate life, practicality beats abstraction every time.

From a principled perspective, a private business corporation cannot in good conscience claim that it is a “family.” Private business corporations are not “caring institutions.” They do not show love. They do not raise children. They do not nurture tenderness or show mercy to relatives. Rather, they are legal entities dedicated solely to their shareholders’ private profit interests. To suggest, then, that a company will “treat others like family members” is hypocritical in the extreme. Commerce is war. It is a war for profits, customers, market share and success. Commerce is no place for warmhearted “family feelings.” If a company treated its customers and competitors “like family,” it would fail almost instantaneously. There is no room to be tender or merciful in commerce. A “good corporation” wins accounts and collects its money. By contrast, a “good family” forgives its wayward sons and let them off the hook with a kiss. Families forgive, forget and nurture. Corporations pursue, win and collect—by contract and suit if necessary. These are not consistent ideologies. In that light, it is both misleading and fraudulent to equate “corporate values” with “family values.”

We should expect both deception and fraud from corporations because deception and fraud reveal dishonor. Honor means adhering to principles, no matter the circumstances. Honor means suffering for ideas, even when abandoning those ideas might abrogate the suffering. Corporations, however, cannot be honorable. They must win profits. That means “going with the flow” and breaking principles when necessary. In short, corporations must be “flexible,” not “honorable.” It is honorable to “tell the truth” and “to be honest.” But if honesty and truth endanger results, a corporate leader can be neither honest nor truthful. He has a duty to enrich his shareholders by any cost-effective means necessary. That is why he resorts to misleading characterizations, such as calling his for-profit entity “A Family Business.” If corporate leaders were honorable, they would refuse to equate their quest for private profit with tender family emotions. Yet they do not refuse. They serve their shareholders because they have a duty to make them rich. If calling the business “family-like” wins profits, they have no choice but to be dishonorable.

In the world of corporate morality, deception and fraud are not ethical transgressions. They are “calculated measures intended to win maximum profit for minimal risk.” A good corporation knows how to be unethical without ever arousing suspicion. Conscience and honor play no role in this analysis. It is unfortunate. But it is a jungle out there; and commerce is commerce.